BLAST OF SILENCE (1961)

Blast of Silence

“When the Better Business Bureau rings the Christmas bell, the suckers forget there’s such a business as murder, and businessmen who make it their exclusive line.”

It’s Christmas week and Cleveland hitman Baby Boy Frankie Bono is on assignment in New York City, where his target is some second string syndicate boss “with too much ambition.” It’s been a while since Frankie’s been in NYC and the last thing he wants is unnecessary contact with folks who may recognize him. When the job takes a turn for the worse, Frankie’s gotta keep his cool and stay alive in this rat maze. Allen Baron wrote, directed, and stars in Blast of Silence, a lean, mean look at urban violence and the seedy sweaty underworld that nutures it. The film is both visually stunning and rough around the edges, and she’s loaded with indie sensibilities, making it a standout of the tail end of the classic noir cycle.

The film opens with a POV shot of a subway train barreling through a tunnel. As the train approaches light, simulating a birth canal, the gritty-voiced narrator, Lionel Stander, is talking about hate – about expressing hate through that first scream a baby belts out when it’s slapped by a doctor in the delivery room. Now that Frankie’s older, he expresses hate in a different way – with a pistol. This kinda pulpy narration continues throughout the film. I love it.

Frankie was raised in one of the city’s orphanages, one that must’ve fostered his anger, causing him to emerge the stone-cold killer he is. The narrator fills us in on what Frankie’s thinking, which is typically something pleasantly misanthropic and bleak. It’s entertaining, hard-boiled as hell narration. Christmas creeps Frankie out. He enjoys being a loner. And he’s got a lot of money, meaning he’s really good at what he does.

From the moment Frankie steps off the train in Penn Station, there ain’t no sunshine. Blast of Silence was shot on location in NYC on what appears to be exclusively overcast days. The natural grittiness and beauty of the city is on full display, and Frankie moves through its mazes like some kind of well-dressed shadow as he tails his mark, Troiano (Peter H. Clune).

Frankie needs a piece for the job, so he sniffs out an old business acquaintance, the obese rat-lover Big Ralph (Larry Tucker). Man, does this sleazy bearded slob steal the show. His exasperated mannerisms, his genuine love of his pet rats, and his cunning manipulation of Frankie make Ralph an unforgettable noir figure. He exists in that moral gray area between crime and business. Due to his unassuming stature, his blackmailing of Frankie hits hard. The scenes Tucker and Baron share together are definitely the most compelling of the film.

Blast of Silence 1961

The job is going alright for Frankie until he runs into Lori (Molly McCarthy), a fellow orphan who came up in the same institution. This sparks up old, unwanted feelings in Frankie – whose job won’t allow for a woman. The romantic trappings Frankie experiences quickly tear him apart, and while it doesn’t do much for the overall narrative, I feel like the romantic subplot displays the remaining shrapnel of Frankie’s humanity.

I was really impressed with the structure of the film, which follows Frankie from the contract to the hit. He goes through step by step of the hit, including the down time, tailing, gun appropriation, building stake out, etc. (not in that order). For such a short film, it’s pacing is really patient. I really dug how the whole show played out.

Stylistically, Blast of Silence possesses the gritty NYC realism of Dassin’s The Naked City and the bleak, shadowy edge of the classics. Tucker chews every scene he’s in as he fills the frame like some kinda poor man’s Sydney Greenstreet. Baron is a wiz behind the camera and his performance is appropriately cold – that is until his romantic anger towards Lori bursts forth in a scene of raw power.

Blast of Silence was unreleased proper in the U.S. until the mighty Criterion Collection got their paws on it a few years ago. It’s a mean little flick with indie sensibilities that helps it transcend any kinda genre constraints.

Patrick Cooper

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